Culross Parish Church (West Church)

Culross Church, exterior, from south east

Summary description

The church occupies an isolated churchyard about 800 metres to the north-west of the small town of Culross. The remains consist of a ruined building of rectangular plan, whose walls stand to varying heights, with a rectangular laterally projecting aisle that stands to full height near the mid-point of the south wall.

Historical outline

Dedication: St Serf?

While there are very strong traditional cult associations between Culross and the early historic mission activities of saints Serf/Servanus and Kentigern/Mungo, there is no surviving record evidence for an early monastery or church at this location before the early 1200s. The earliest surviving reference to a parish church dates from 1217, when Earl Malcolm of Fife granted full possession of it to his new Cistercian abbey of Culross.(1) His gifting of both parsonage and vicarage revenues to the monastery suggests that the medieval parish of Culross probably developed to serve the shire of Culross, a royal fiscal and administrative unit which had come to form a discrete portion of the estates of the earls of Fife in the twelfth century, and that the earls had thus possessed full property rights over it. Possession of the church was confirmed to the monks by kings Alexander II and Robert I.(2) The church remained fully appropriated to the abbey at the Reformation and allocation of £200 was made from the abbey’s income in January 1561/2 ‘yeirlie to ane minister to serf in the kirk of Culros, conforme to the Buk of Reformatioun’.(3)


1. PSAS, lx, 69-71, 73-5.

2. RRS, v, no 141.

3. Kirk (ed.), Book of Assumptions, 292.

Architectural analysis

The main body of the church is a rectangle of about 23.2 metres from east to west by about 6.5 metres from north to south, with walls of about 80 centimetres in thickness that stand to a maximum height of about 2.5 metres. A chamfered base course runs along much of the east wall. The walls are constructed mainly of large blocks of roughly squared grey to buff masonry. There are rectangular doorways with chamfered surrounds towards the west end of both the south and north walls, that in the south wall has evidently had a porch over it at some date on the evidence of a roof crease; there are also traces of a blocked doorway in the south wall of the chancel. A wide breach in the north wall is within what appears to be an extensively rebuilt stretch of masonry. In the east wall there is evidence for the south jamb of a window to the south of three ledger slabs that have been set into that wall internally. A vertical joint to the east of the nave doorway may indicate the previous position of a window before the south aisle was added at this point. The only complete window is a small rectangular opening to the west of the south doorway, which has a broadly chamfered external reveal.

The extent of modern rebuilding at the church is problematic in a number of areas. Both of the nave doorways have re-used medieval grave slabs as internal lintels. That above the south door has a fine foliate-headed cross as its main feature; there are two re-used stones above the north doorway, the lintel stone itself having a sword and an axe, and above it there is a second slab with a foliate-headed cross, a sword and what appears to be a mason’s square. This might suggest that the doorways are post-medieval rebuildings using medieval stones; however, while it is unlikely that they are primary features, it is common enough for earlier memorials to be re-used in this way in the middle ages for there to be no reason not to regard them as late medieval. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that there has been some relatively recent reconstruction in which worked stones have been re-set. There is what appears to be a fragment of a coped gravestone built into the upper part of the wall to the east of the north doorway in a way that suggests it is a relatively late insertion, while a number of carved stones, including a fleur-de-lis, a shield with the arms of Bruce, and a fragment of a memorial with memento mori have been built into the wall above the entrance to the south aisle. It can also be seen that a re-used skew stone has been built into the internal wall on west side of the window towards the west end of the south wall.

The greatest element of uncertainty at the church, however, is the date of the aisle which projects from near the mid-point of the south wall. This has generally been assumed to have been built as a mortuary aisle in the seventeenth century, a view presumably largely based on its crowstepped gables and rectangular mullioned windows, the south window having three lights and the west window having had two. Yet against such a late date are indications that the church was still in use when it was built. The chief indicator of this is the fact that it opens into the church through a wide arch. Although in its present segmental form that arch may have been rebuilt, it does appear to perpetuate the original dimensions; it may also be noted that MacGibbon and Ross show that the arch had been walled up with no more than a door left as access, suggesting that the original wide arch was no longer appropriate after the church was abandoned for worship. It is also significant that the windows of the aisle are only in the west and south walls, with the east wall unpierced. This was an arrangement common in medieval chapel aisles, where the east wall was often windowless to allow the location of a retable behind the altar, whereas it is difficult to see what the logic for this would have been in a post-Reformation mortuary aisle. It should also be borne in mind that examples of both crowstepped gables and rectangular mullioned windows are to be found before the Reformation. Taking all of this into account, and accepting that it certainly was later used as a mortuary aisle, it must be seen as a possibility that it had been built before the Reformation as a chapel, albeit not before the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.

On the basis of the above, it is therefore suggested that the church was first built at an unknown date, but possibly in the thirteenth century, as a rectangular structure, with windows in its east and south walls. There was a priest’s door in the south wall of the chancel and doors towards the west end of the nave in both the south and north walls, though the latter doors have been rebuilt to their present form in the later middle ages. At some date, perhaps not long before the Reformation, a chapel may have been added on the south side of the nave. After the parishioners had moved to the more conveniently located abbey church following the Reformation, the church was unroofed and adapted for use as a burials place, with the supposed chapel presumably continuing in use by the family that had built and endowed it.

By an Act of Parliament of 1633 the parish was formally relocated to the abbey church, where it still occupies the thirteenth-century presbytery, transepts and monastic choir, together with the tower built over the retrochoir by Abbot Mason in about 1500. It appears that this relocation may have been a formalisation of an existing situation, since it was said in 1633 that the parish church had not been used for worship within living memory, and it may be suspected that the eastern parts of the monastic church had been taken over soon after the Reformation.


Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh, 41.

Douglas, W., 1927, ‘Culross Abbey and its charters’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, xl, 67-94 at 69-71, 73-5.

Gifford, J., 1988, The Buildings of Scotland, Fife, London, 151.

Hallen, A., 1877, ‘Secular and ecclesiastical antiquities of Culross’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, xii, 251-2.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford, 292.

MacGibbon, D. and Ross, T., 1896-7, The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, ii (1896), 243-5.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845, Edinburgh and London,  (Fife), 600.

Regesta Regum Scottorum, Acts of William I (1165-1214), 1971, Edinburgh, no 141.

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, 1933, Inventory of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, Edinburgh, 69-70.

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Canmore database.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh, x (1794), 146-7.

Walker, J.R., 1888, Pre-Reformation churches, Fife and the Lothians, Edinburgh.



Click on any thumbnail to open the image gallery and slideshow.

  • 1. Culross Church, exterior, from south east

  • 2. Culross Abbey Church, modified to serve as parish church, interior, looking east

  • 3. Culross Abbey Church, modified to serve as parish church, exterior from south

  • 4. Culross Church, plan (MacGibbon and Ross)

  • 5. Culross Church, plan

  • 6. Culross Church, chancel wall ex-situ window jamb

  • 7. Culross Church, interior, south nave window interior

  • 8. Culross Church, interior, nave, south wall, door, ledger slab re-used as lintel

  • 9. Culross Church, interior, nave, north wall, door, ledger slab re-used as lintel

  • 10. Culross Church, interior, from north west

  • 11. Culross Church, interior, east wall

  • 12. Culross Church, exterior, nave, north wall, re-used stone

  • 13. Culross Church, exterior, south aisle, from south

  • 14. Culross Church, exterior, east wall

  • 15. Culross Church, exterior, nave, north wall, door

  • 16. Culross Church, exterior, nave, south wall, door and window

  • 17. Culross Church, exterior, nave, from south